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Out There: How to shoot better hunting photos

10/17/2006

Editor's note: Once you've mastered the art of game photos, send us your work; we'll consider posting an image in our Hunting Photo Gallery.


Hunters witness many unforgettable things outdoors — beautiful sunrises and sunsets; spectacular gatherings of migrant birds; enchanting landscapes; interesting animal behavior; remote wilderness areas; and much more.

It's the foremost reason many of us hunt: We enjoy the outdoors and the marvels of nature we find there.

Photography allows us to share these scenes with others.

Yet when we take a camera on a hunting trip, many of us fail to take photos that demonstrate why we love our sport. Instead, we snap a few shots of our hunting buddy holding a dead animal, and that's it.

If we want others to enjoy our hunting photos, and to gain some understanding about why we hunt when they see them, we should use forethought in choosing our subject matter.

First, avoid photos that present negative images of hunting to friends or family members who don't hunt. Blood dripping from the nostrils of a deer or splashing the feathers of a bird ruins a picture. A grinning hunter standing by a gutted elk may look macho, but it's not a pleasant scene.

It's certainly OK to show the game you kill, but try to do so in a pleasing manner. With a little planning, you can make an attractive shot of a hunter approaching a downed buck or gobbler, one that doesn't show blood and bullet holes.

If the hunter is holding small-game animals, try to include a scenic background that draws the eye away from the dead animals.

Think before you shoot. Will this photo bring sighs of wonderment or gasps of revulsion?

Take time to photograph all the enjoyable aspects of your hunt:

  • Snap a shot of your hunting companions indulging in a tailgate lunch or a friend savoring the view from a mountain overlook.

  • Capture the simple beauty of decoys silhouetted against a rising sun or the excitement of a hunter drawing a bead on a just-flushed quail.

  • Release your gun for a moment and photograph the geese passing by on their morning flight.

  • Set your camera on a tripod, turn on the self-timer and photograph your hunting party sitting around the campfire at day's end.

    Do your best to capture the flavor of each hunt.

    There's no reason you can't shoot photos and bullets on the same outing.

    For instance, I enjoy duck hunting. When I go, I use my camera first, shooting a few photos during those golden minutes around sunrise. Then I exchange my camera for my shotgun and enjoy an hour or so of hunting. Before I leave, I spend another hour or so shooting photos.

    When all is done, I have ducks for dinner and photos that allow me to share the experience with others.

    Equipment

    I'm often asked to recommend the best type of camera for outdoor photography.

    Nowadays, most folks are going to opt for the convenience of a digital camera. You don't have to buy film or pay for film processing, which keeps costs low. And you can immediately look at your photos on the camera, on a television or on a computer. Printing is easy at home. Many inexpensive models are available.

    If you're shooting "people photos" only, one of the many types of small, automatic "point and shoot" cameras may be adequate. These cameras are great for shooting scenic photos, too. And because they're compact, you can stick one in your coat pocket and have it ready to shoot in an instant.

    A good single lens reflex (SLR) camera that will accept interchangeable lenses is best if you want to shoot wildlife photos or photos you hope to sell for publication. These can set you back several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars; but for quality photography, they can't be beat.

    I suggest visiting a camera shop and seeking the advice of a professional who can recommend a model with the features and in the price range you want. You can choose from top-of-the-line auto-focus, "do everything" models or relatively inexpensive cameras with manually operated features you can easily learn to use.

    A "normal" lens — something in the 55mm range — serves great for uncomplicated up-close photography. If you want to shoot photos of wild animals, you'll need a good telephoto lens, something in the 200mm-600mm range. The longer and more powerful the lens, the more you'll pay for it.

    Almost all the photos I take for magazine publication are shot using a 28mm-300mm zoom lens, which allows me to photograph a buddy in the close confines of a boat or an elk standing on a nearby hillside.

    Zooms are the most economical choice for most photographers who want to be able to shoot a variety of photos without having to carry numerous lenses.

    Tips for good photos

  • When shooting photos of your fellow hunters, you should enhance the subject and make him or her look busy or comfortable but never posed as if to say, "I'm having my picture taken." To accomplish this, it's best — at least most of the time — to avoid having your subject look directly into the camera.

    If a portrait type photo is being taken (a "head and neck" shot), then having a person stare into the lens may be very effective. In most outdoor situations, however, better photos will result if the subject is busy doing something while being photographed. This could be a bird hunter grooming his dog, someone cooking over a campfire, a friend using binoculars to scan the countryside for game or a successful hunter smiling proudly as he looks at the trophy animal he has killed.

  • Photos of hunting dogs always have special appeal. Take pictures of them pointing birds, retrieving, with game in their mouths, sitting by a blind, sleeping, alone, with other dogs. For the best close-up photos, always shoot at the dog's eye level.

  • The minutes around sunrise and sunset provide the best light for dramatic hunting photos. This is a good time for shooting silhouettes of your friends holding small-game animals, setting out decoys or shooting. Pictures of the actual sunset or sunrise add beauty to your photo package.

  • Hunting-camp photos are always memorable. Snap a shot of the cook at work, folks sitting around the campfire, scenic vistas with the tents or camp house visible, hunters bringing in game and more. Try to document all aspects of camp life.

  • When hunting in a blind, set your gun down now and then and photograph your hunting partners or game animals that approach. Ducks and geese often can be photographed as they pitch into the decoys. Deer, bears and other big game may present good photo opportunities. Birds, squirrels and other small animals often come near enough to a camouflaged hunter for good photos.

  • Set up some special photos with guns unloaded. Have your partner remove all his ammo, then get a shot of him swinging on a pheasant or covey of quail flushed in front of the dog. Leave the bullet out, and get a great shot of your muzzleloading buddy firing his smokepole. Don't overlook possibilities for candid photos of your friends using game calls, sleeping in the stand or blind, sharpening knives or doing other everyday things.


    Carry a camera. Shoot your hunt. Do this, and you can always relive those magic moments spent hunting.

    To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His new book, "Out There Fishing" (Stoeger Publishing; $19.95), is available at www.catfishsutton.com.